Friday, May 26, 2006

What Explains the Drop in This Year's SAT Scores?

David Kahn runs a private tutoring company in New York. He's published a ticklish piece today on the drop-off in this year's SAT scores. The test has been revised a number of times, and the most recent update has made the exam tougher. What's behind the decline? There's less stress on vocabulary (and thus less useful are vocabulary drills) and more stress on analytical reading (the main culprit). There's more challenging mathematics as well. Plus, Kahn hypothesizes, since the cost of taking the exam has gone up, perhaps the number of those giving it a second shot has declined (so no boost in average scores from the repeaters), though he's not convinced by that argument, considering that student spending on university applications has risen at the same time. So what is it? Aha! Maybe kids aren't learning:

The explanation is much more straightforward. The average American receives a pretty mediocre education. The average SAT score drifted down from 1000 in the 1960s to 880 in 1993. Education activists attributed this plummet to cultural factors, a change in the testing pool and other matters. The blame was placed everywhere but on schools. That the quality of education in America declined from the 1960s to the 1990s was hardly noted in debates over the SAT.

And then the test was "recentered." Thanks to the change in the SAT scale and the change in the kinds of questions that were asked on the test, scores went up and people were able to ignore the fact that most students are not well-educated. Indeed, parents compared their children's scores with their own and concluded that their children were brilliant. Now ETS has made it a little harder to get away with not knowing your three R's.

People complain that the SAT is biased and that the bias explains why students don't do well. That's true--it is biased. It's biased against people who aren't well-educated. The test isn't causing people to have bad educations, it's merely reflecting the reality. And if you don't like your reflection, that doesn't mean that you should smash the mirror.

That the new SAT tests more reading comprehension than the old test did is a good thing. Colleges complain that their incoming students don't have sufficient skills to read and analyze the kind of material that their professors will assign them. I hope that the new SAT's emphasis will make students realize that you can't get much of an education if you can't read.

Maybe the decline in SAT scores will force people to notice that their children are not getting good educations. If your children don't read or do math, why would you think that they would do well on the SAT? I would love to get into a time machine and go back to 1960 and give this new SAT to high-school students back then. I suspect that they would do much better than today's students. If we want people to get good scores on the SAT, I have a suggestion. Stop complaining about how unfair the test is and do your homework.

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